Earlier Prehistory

The earlier prehistory of the West Midlands

Paul Garwood

The earlier prehistory of the West Midlands was once seen as an unrewarding subject for serious archaeological research. This region was usually represented on distribution maps of earlier prehistoric sites and finds as an almost blank area; a vast tract of the British landscape virtually devoid of ‘significant’ material remains. The region was characterised archaeologically as a ‘barren waste’ (C W Phillips, cited by Seaby 1949, 85), and for much of prehistory was thought to have been ‘culturally backward’ (ibid, 87). Despite his earnest efforts to put ‘the Birmingham plateau and its margins’ back on the archaeological map, Seaby had to admit that between the Rollright Stones and the Wrekin ‘there was scarcely a prehistoric monument that even the most ardent antiquarian would turn aside to inspect’ (ibid, 85).

The first attempts to rewrite the earlier prehistory of the region were closely linked to major discoveries and investigations of crop mark sites in the Avon and Severn valleys (Webster and Hobley 1964; Hunt 1982), and more extensive regional surveys that tried to integrate the results of ‘rescue archaeology’ work in the mid 1960s to mid 1980s with contemporary overviews and interpretative studies (eg Stanford 1980, Hunt 1982, Vine 1982, Gibson 1989, Loveday 1989). Most county-scale summaries of the evidence, however, were written before 1970 (eg Gunstone 1964, 1965; Smith 1957) and were already out of date by the time that larger-scale studies were undertaken. The notable exceptions are Richard Hingley’s review of prehistoric Warwickshire (1996) and Mike Hodder’s study of the archaeology of Birmingham (2004). Recent large-scale landscape studies in the West Midlands have been restricted to the north-western part of the region (eg Leah et al 1998, Mullin 2003), while thematic studies of specific categories of evidence have barely impinged on the region, the most valuable being Barnatt and Collis’ survey of Peak District barrows (1996). There have been a few more recent attempts to redefine and resituate the prehistoric archaeology of the West Midlands in relation to broad research themes and new appraisals of the nature of earlier prehistoric evidence. The most important of these have focussed on the Neolithic and Bronze Age of Shropshire (Carver 1991, Watson 1991; Buteux and Hughes 1995), and on the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of the region as a whole (Lang and Keen 2005).

A remarkable feature of much of this literature is the overt way in which archaeologists attempted to challenge what they regarded as prejudiced and misleading characterisations of West Midlands earlier prehistory as somehow unimportant, materially invisible or culturally impoverished. Just as Hunt once dismissed the notion that the region was an ‘archaeological wasteland’ (1982, 1), Buteux and Hughes have more recently rejected the view that lowland Shropshire was a ‘wilderness’ (1995, 159). Similarly, Hodder has suggested that rather than being a ‘barren waste’ the Birmingham area has produced evidence for significant earlier prehistoric activity (2004). At the same time, concerted attempts have been made to account for the absence or scarcity of prehistoric evidence. These typically draw attention to geological and environmental constraints on the identification and investigation of prehistoric sites (eg soils and land use regimes that are not conducive to air photographic survey; or alluvial processes that have concealed ancient land surfaces), destruction of prehistoric sites by urban development and agricultural and industrial activities (especially ploughing and gravel extraction), and a lack of archaeological fieldwork and research (Carver 1991, 1; Hunt 1982; cf assessments in Barber 2007, Myers 2007, Ray 2007). It has also been suggested that earlier prehistoric social organisations and cultural practices within the region were distinctive, with extensive kinds of economic activity, a high degree of residential mobility, limited investment in durable architecture’ and forms of cultural expression that involved little in the way of formal material deposition (eg Buteux and Hughes 1995; cf Ray 2007).

The need to revisit these themes again and again over the last 30 years seems at first sight to provide a measure of the persistence with which West Midlands prehistory is still materially and interpretatively ‘marginalised’, despite the ardent endeavours of those who have tried to redress the situation. It is now time, however, to re-evaluate this appraisal, especially in the light of the period assessments discussed in the following sections. These show that some of the most striking features of the earlier prehistoric archaeology of the region are the relative scarcity of evidence, the rarity of prominent monuments, the small-scale nature of many artefact assemblages, thin and uneven distributions of sites and finds, and areas which appear consistently to be devoid of earlier prehistoric evidence of any period. It is especially notable how often recent large-scale excavation projects have produced almost no earlier prehistoric remains or only the occasional isolated pit group, including the Wroxeter Hinterland Project (V Gaffney, pers comm), the Mid-Shropshire Wetland Survey (Leah et al 1998), the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (Denison 2002; Powell et al 2008), and the Arrow Valley project in Warwickshire (Palmer 1999).

In this context, it is becoming increasingly difficult to account for the scarcity of earlier prehistoric evidence in the terms outlined above, or simply to claim that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence for absence’. The West Midlands has been subject to hundreds of archaeological investigations since the 1960s, at a greatly accelerated pace since the advent of PPG16, with few areas untouched by fieldwork of some kind (eg see Darvill and Russell 2002, 28-9), yet the overall pattern of earlier prehistoric finds distributions and site identifications has for the most part changed only in detail.

This does not, however, mean that the region is unimportant in research terms. In fact, there are good reasons to argue that the opposite is the case. Despite the overall scarcity of earlier prehistoric evidence, there are parts of the West Midlands with significant concentrations of sites of one or several periods (eg the Staffordshire Peak District, the middle Trent valley, the Avon valley in Warwickshire, the upper Severn valley and parts of upland Herefordshire and Shropshire close to the Welsh border). These are comparable with similar site concentrations in other regions such as Wessex, south-east England and the east midlands. In addition, while some ‘classic’ site types (of various periods) are rare or absent, it is apparent that monument groups in the region (eg Neolithic ceremonial complexes and Early Bronze Age dispersed round barrow groups) and specific site categories (eg cave sites, occupation sites, enclosures, cursus monuments and round barrows) have clear research significance in national terms. In some cases, individual sites easily bear comparison in terms of surviving material evidence and research potential with similar sites elsewhere. Most notably, recent reassessments of the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic of the West Midlands highlight the research potential of the evidence in international as well as national terms (Lang and Keen 2005; Lang and Buteux 2007).

The uneven distributions of earlier prehistoric evidence within the region, especially between central areas (with low densities of surface finds and known sites), and outer parts of the region (with often dense monument and/or artefact distributions), also have considerable potential for investigating intra- and inter-regional variation in the nature and intensity of social and economic activity. Indeed, it can be argued that while the region lacks a coherent geographical identity and is an arbitrary unit of study in cultural terms, it is especially well situated for comparative study of prehistoric societies, cultural repertoires and the activities of many different social groups. This is not only because of the great diversity of cultural forms, practices and sequences of change evident in each period, particularly around the periphery and in different river systems, but also because of the geographical position of the region. It is centrally located in southern Britain between the Welsh mountains and east midlands plains, between the south-west peninsular and the Yorkshire Wolds and Moors, and between the chalk and limestone hills and river valleys of southern England and the Pennine and Cumbrian uplands. Cultural exchanges between these varied regions in prehistory must have involved forms of social action and movement that traversed the West Midlands.

In this light, the desire to ‘champion the cause’ of West Midlands earlier prehistory by simply seeking more sites and finds to fill distributional gaps, and thus redress the biases of previous fieldwork and geo-environmental conditions, now appears to be misguided. A particular problem with this approach is the tendency for fieldworkers to operate at local or county rather than regional (let alone national) scales of enquiry and to devote insufficient attention to comparative analyses or research themes that transcend local concerns. In this way it is easy to miss what is really distinctive about the evidence and to lose sight of what is – and is not – important in wider research terms.

The enormous value of the West Midlands Regional Research Framework earlier prehistory seminar, and the significant research outcomes that have followed from it (see the wide range of papers in Garwood (ed) 2007d), has been to look at the full geographical extent of the region and to produce synthetic, critical evaluations of specific periods and categories of evidence across the entire region with reference to current national research agenda. For the first time it is possible to obtain a reliable and balanced assessment of the nature, scale, types, qualities and distributions of the material evidence for each earlier prehistoric period, and an evaluation of current interpretative frameworks and the research potential of earlier prehistoric sites and material culture in the region.

This work has revealed what appears to be real variation in earlier prehistoric activity and strongly suggests very sparse occupation in some areas, but this can only contribute to a mature understanding of the nature of prehistoric social and cultural life in the West Midlands. At the same time, as the following period-based reviews will demonstrate, the evidence is extraordinarily diverse, often of extremely high quality in terms of site preservation, surviving monuments, dating evidence and artefact assemblages, and that there are widespread opportunities for detailed studies of prehistoric landscapes of all periods. There is no question that earlier prehistoric studies in the West Midlands, effectively guided by clear research agenda, will contribute to current and future research at a national scale of enquiry, and that there is great potential for dedicated research programmes, research-led initiatives in curatorial archaeology and research-guided developer-funded archaeological fieldwork in the region.